For years the dispute about Zwarte Piet has been getting more vehement. The voices against ‘Black Petes’ are getting louder and supporters find ways to make themselves heard over the noise. No one is using their polite voice anymore. It’s all got rather nasty if truth be told. But any idea who doesn’t give a crap about how Pete looks? I’ll tell you……
The History of Zwarte Piet
Some say that Zwarte Piet is an embodiment of racism: the black curly hair, the deep black face, gold hooped earrings, red lips.
Others say the black face is simply soot from going down the chimney to deliver presents to the children. The rest of the get up? It just is. Nothing racist about it.
Zwarte Piet stems back to the nineteenth century where he first appeared in a children’s illustrated book with Sinterklaas’ page.
According to writer and Sinterklaas expert Frits Booy (member of the Nationaal Sint Nicolaas Comité) the depicted page certainly had links to slavery.
“Het is zeker dat in het Europa van de zestiende tot halverwege de negentiende eeuw de Moorse pages meestal onvrijwillig in dienst van blanke dames en heren waren.” NPO – Waar Komt Zwarte Piet Vandaan?
Back then Zwarte Piet wasn’t the fun comedic helper he is now. Zwarte Piet was a figure who helped sort out the naughty kids from the good ones…..
In 1950, the Sinterklaas intocht saw more and more Petes assisting the Sint, and after 1970 different types of Petes appeared. Such as the Hoofdpiet.
The Black Pete Discussion
It may seem that the discussion around the Black Petes is new but it’s actually been on Dutch society’s agenda since the 1960s. It peaks and dips.
When I arrived in 2000, there was little discussion over Zwarte Piet, at least as far as I was aware.
That’s not to say there was no discussion in our home. I was gobsmacked when I first set eyes on a Zwarte Piet. My Dutch husband listened as I shared my first impressions of the figure, and somewhere een kwartje viel.
He genuinely had seen Zwarte Piet as Sinterklaas’ hulpje without any racist connotations. He grew up with the figure and didn’t think much about it. Certainly not as a child.
When an outsider pointed out Zwart Piet could be seen in another light, he agreed that it could indeed be construed as a racist figure.
Tradition and Zwarte Piet
And that discussion we had in our home sums up the argument that is raging in society.
Tradition is important. But fresh eyes cast upon a habit is not a bad thing.
Many Dutch people see Zwarte Piet as a traditional figure, and you don’t mess with tradition. He’s always looked like that and we don’t need to change it.
However, there are many Dutch people who consider change necessary. Society should move with the times.
The Netherlands we all live in today is different to the country of the 1960s.
It’s a fact of life that traditions evolve. Traditions adapt so they don’t die out.
And that is what is currently happening with the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas.
Just Pete or Piet
The NOS announced in October that the Zwarte Pieten as we knew them will be completely phased out this year. All Pete’s will have soot smeared faces and not the deep black faces of the past. There will be no curly wigs. Nor golden hoops hanging from ears.
That doesn’t mean you won’t see traditional Black Petes when you attend your local intocht. However, as far as the TV Sinterklaas show goes its over and out for Zwarte Piet as he was. It’s just Pete now.
There have been cheers. There has been uproar.
And the debate is certainly not over. Will it ever be?
Who Doesn’t Give a Crap?
The Sinterklaas party is actually supposed to be a children’s celebration.
The children watch the Sinterklaas Journaal.
The children put their shoes out by the fireplace to be filled with sweets and a present.
The children sing songs for two months long and beyond about the man himself and his helpers.
The children are the ones who go bat shit crazy for Sinterklaas and his Petes.
You don’t hear them discussing the appearance of the Petes. I’m sure mine haven’t even noticed the gradual changes over the last five years that the NOS has made.
Take away their presents on the 5th December and they’d give a crap.
Tell them to stop singing about the bloody stoomboot and they’d give a crap.
Tell them that we no longer put shoes out to be filled with goodies and they’d give a crap.
Tell them that they have to do normal school work between the intocht and the 5th December and they’d give a crap.
Tell them pepernoten and kruidnoten are banned from hereon in and they’d give a crap.
Change Piet’s face from black to soot smeared? They couldn’t give a crap.